Shumita at the beauty salon. Credit: Julie Moggan
The other night there was a documentary on PBS about "the deeper personal and social meanings of the [romance] genre's allure," with the unimaginative title of Guilty Pleasures. As much as the title gave me pause, I naturally got very excited--as I always do when books are discussed, but most especially romance novels. You'll probably be equally unsurprised at how annoyed I was at the documentary. Here are a few things that really struck me:
- Romance is a genre by, for, and about women. Yet the ONLY romance author featured in the entire documentary was a male. Now, said author (Roger Sanderson, writing under the pseudonym Gill Sanderson) seemed like a good guy and gave some sound advice about writing--other than the comment, "Women want to be told the same things over and over," which made me a trifle stabby--but in the only literary genre where women are both the primary consumers and producers, and damn proud of that fact, why would you choose to feature a male author? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? Because you don't really want to make a film about the romance industry at all? Gotcha.
- Moving on to the readers, the filmmakers once again made interesting choices in the subjects (or, as director Julie Moggen referred to them, "characters") they interviewed. Naturally, all the readers were women, and the world-wide appeal of romances was highlighted through a selection of women from the UK, India, and Japan. Despite their cultural differences, however, all these women seemed basically the same: they were all bored housewives. Or, if any of them did have jobs, they weren't featured doing them. They also had less than satisfactory love lives: Shumita, a rejected first wife, is dating a man-child more in love with his car than with her; Shirley is a housewife with a husband who's a manic-depressive bloke; and Hiroko is yet another housewife whose inadequate husband does not get her obsession with "ballroom dancing." Lonely, undersexed women of the world unite! Mommy porn, anyone?
- I know what you're totally not thinking right now and would never think: how do romance novels affect the men in their female readers' lives? Well, it's a good thing you don't give a rat's ass, because the filmmakers made sure to focus on that. Basically, the men-folk were left feeling isolated and mystified by their partners' interest in romances--even when they were more or less supportive of their partner's little hobby. In fact, I was a little perturbed by how the filmmakers implied the women's interest in romances--Hiroko in particular--was selfish and resulted in them neglecting their families. Hiroko's husband is the one shown parenting their children--even in the scenes where they're in the same room, Mr. Hiroko is playing with their kids while Hiroko herself ignores them. Other scenes show her watching dance videos on TV and lying on the couch reading, sans-offspring. Shirley is supposedly a mother as well, but I don't recall seeing any scenes of her with her kids. I do, however, remember her lying on a couch and eating bonbons.
- The filmmakers also implied the readers have trouble separating fantasy from reality (which I find ironic considering this entire documentary is a fantasy). Hiroko seems to conflate European (i.e., romance hero) looks with good dancing, is having an affair in her head with her dance instructor, and wants her husband to act out scenes from romance novels. Shirley is given kudos for not rejecting her hubby despite the fact that he's not perfect (like a romance hero), even though she had to think about it for a while.
- The male cover model--now I may be outlier here, but I really do not care about the models on the covers of romance novels. AT ALL. I try my best to ignore romance novel covers, and I don't see how the model is pertinent to this topic. Why not interview the paper supplier and the person who designed the book's font while you're at it?
- I did like how the conclusion of the documentary showed Hiroko's husband stepping up to the plate and learning how to ballroom dance so he could spend time with her, and Shirley's hubby going out of his way to make them a romantic dinner. That was really sweet. But notice it's the MEN going through a narrative evolution here, not the women.
Guilty Pleasures did not reflect anything I personally know about the industry or the genre, such as the fact that people of both sexes read romance, and that romance readers come from all walks of life, careers, interests, education, religions, and so forth. A five-minute look at romance blogs should be able to tell you this much. But then Guilty Pleasures isn't really for romance readers; it's for suits who would never dream of picking up a romance. It wants to reinforce the stereotypes about romance readers, not shatter them, and chooses to treat the subject with sentimentality, not honesty. The final message seems to be, "Aren't romance lovers cute?"
At least they didn't refer to romance as porn--I suppose that's a step in the right direction?